It’s tempting to wonder what the Ben Folds of the ’90s would think about the new work he’s about to put out.
Back then, he was a piano-pounding smartass who wrote funny, earnest and deeply moving songs about everything from abortion and breakups to slackerism and telling off The Man. Now? Well, now he’s got the whole music elder statesman thing going on, Folds freely admits, and he’s even set to publish a book in July: A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons. Which might sound like a very The Man thing to do, until you read in the opening pages, which compare living a creative life to the way little kids will scamper around the yard at dusk to catch fireflies – or “lightnin’ bugs,” in the vernacular of his North Carolina youth.
It’s that simple childhood pleasure around which the book’s unspooling of his life is based. That’s what creatives are here to do, Folds explains. Catch beautiful, flickering insects in a jar that no one else notices until you hold it close. See? I caught this one for you, this one about Emaline that I found glowing over there. And another one, about Eddie Walker putting a name tag on his smock. This one, about the married couples slamming doors on Silver Street, and that one, about the guy driving the little white rental along the interstate, on his way to Normal, Illinois.
So many of his songs through the years have been like those — near-novellas compressed into brief spans of time, character sketches painted with deft, McCartney-like whimsy and pathos. To put it another way, yes, Folds still plays an average of 110 live shows a year. His music isn’t as loud or as aggressive as it used to be. But he remains a freakishly prolific storyteller. One who was going to get around to writing the story he knows best — his own — eventually.
“I love albums, but boy are they a pain in the ass to make,” Folds tells Billboard. “They cost a lot of money, and I find them painful. I found it a lot less painful to write a book.
“The point I try to make in the book is to really just follow the things that interest you. I try to justify the role of the artist as being that person who can see a particular thing, and it’s your responsibility to share it. Because life is just so short. Once you’ve got clean water, a roof over your head, your kids are safe — just follow the things that glow.”
It’s an M.O. he certainly lives by himself — or tries to. He’s made plenty of albums both on his own and with Ben Folds Five, which is the thing you’d expect from a singer-songwriter, but many of the glowing points that have captured his interest lately don’t have anything to do with recorded music at all.
For example, he talked with Billboard about his new book on the same day he’d just finished hosting a podcast interview with former Democratic congressman John Delaney of Maryland, who’s running a longshot 2020 presidential campaign. Folds is actually trying to interview every presidential candidate for his new podcast, which is an outgrowth of his chairmanship of ArtsVote2020, an initiative of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund that’s pushing for more support for the arts and arts education. It’s a far cry from playing rock n’ roll, but this is Folds living the point he makes in his book.
In this same way, his career has taken some surprise detours — anything from hooking up with novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the lyrics for Folds’ 2010 album Lonely Avenue, to joining the fan subscription site Patreon in March. Regarding the latter, benefits of becoming one of Folds’ “patrons” include exclusive livestreams in which he plays records, talks about music production, doodles around on the piano improvising tunes to lyrics that fans submit and more.
You can keep tracing this same arc the deeper you look into his career, which has also given us 2015’s So There, an album of chamber rock songs recorded in part with New York City classical ensemble yMusic, and even his guest TV appearances on series like FX’s dark comedy You’re The Worst. Last year, he worked with The Washington Post to write and record a song about former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called “Mister Peepers.” You get the idea. Chasing the things that glow.
In his book, Folds also takes you through his wonder years. The slog through school, the dead-end jobs like his adolescent stint at Hertz Truck Rental manning a desk. They’re refreshing to see, if nothing else as a reminder that rock stars can come from Winston-Salem as surely as they can from Seattle or Liverpool. Folds writes at one point in the book that he’s always felt like “rock music and popular culture took the middle class in the suburbs for granted. Stuck somewhere between the rural and the urban, just beyond the strip malls and before the pastures, the suburbanites were expected to buy all the CDs, (but) their stories weren’t supposed to be featured in them.”
He featured stories like those, because as he explains his songwriting process to Billboard, when he’s working on a song, his formula is brutally simple. Music first, “and then the lyrics come along, and I just keep playing with them until it feels like life.”
“I found power early on,” he says “in saying things exactly the way a person I know or I would say them,” he continues. “I used to hear songs say things like ‘Girrrrrrrl, I cry for you.’ And I’m like, no one says that!
“My song ‘Emaline’ was a breakthrough for me, because I used words like ‘stupid’ and ‘money.’ It was a ballad, and no one would put a word like ‘stupid’ in a ballad, but that’s just what I would say! And at that point I realized… ok, I’ve got a thing now.”
A songwriting thing, yes, but also another byproduct of his creatively nomadic approach to life. He got famous, made records, saw his band break up, made music that rocked, made music that flopped, had kids, married, divorced, remarried. He kept chasing the things that glow.
Toward the end of the book, Folds wonders aloud at one point — why can’t he be allowed to sing a “nasty cussing” song one day, compose a piano concerto the next day and “finish the week doing a ridiculous cameo of myself as a raving drunk on You’re The Worst – all while writing a political song for The Washington Post?” The point is, he can.
“You’re not an imposter for following your heart about something,” he muses to Billboard, offering his take on so-called imposter syndrome. “If you pretend to be someone else or you pretend to be the best at something, things born of the ego, then you’re gonna hit that really quickly. Because you’re like… wait a minute, am I really worthy of this?
“Well, the answer is — if you saw it, and you’re interested in it, and it glowed for you, and you capture it and share it with other people… then that is an amazing thing to do for people! Nobody else sees the same thing. That’s why I settled on the lightning bugs idea. Follow the thing that glows, catch that. Because that’s all you’ve got, when it’s all said and done.”